Missteps on the Road to Value: Cell Phone Saga

symbol of our cell phone journey - cracked!

symbol of our cell phone journey – BROKEN!

Last summer, we were spending $99/month on one smartphone and one dumbphone and had a plan to upgrade to two smartphones while reducing expenses.  However, through the winter we had hundreds of dollars of cell phone expenses in each month!  This post covers: 1) What the heck happened!? and 2) How did we resolve it?  If you’ve ever been frustrated or lied to by your cell carrier, you’ll want to add your story to ours!




I destroyed Kyle’s smartphone at a time for us when it was very inopportune to not have any smartphones (moving i.e. no internet at home).  Simultaneously, I had been waiting for my beta wave to come up with a new low-cost carrier.  Since Kyle’s phone was more than two years old (and no longer under contract) we decided it was an okay time for him to get a new phone and contract.  Since the iPhone 5 was set to be released soon, Kyle decided to wait to see how it was received.



  • $63.64 for Kyle’s last Verizon bill
  • $35.00 for my normal dumbphone service charge


September and October


The iPhone 5 release was kind of debacle with all the Apple Maps problems, plus Kyle found out he couldn’t use his favorite typing program (Swype) on Apple products.  So waiting for the iPhone 5 release became waiting for the Galaxy S3 release, which became waiting for the Windows phone release, which became agonizing over all his options!  While this was going on between August and December, we had suspended Kyle’s Verizon account since he no longer had a phone to use but wasn’t totally sure that he would switch to AT&T with his new phone.  So Kyle went these months without any phone whatsoever – another story all to its own about lifestyle deflation.



  • $35 for each of two normal months for my dumbphone service




When my frustration at not being able to reach Kyle when he was out peaked, he finally searched the house and found an old dumbphone and SIM card and started using that so that I could at least contact him when he was away from his computer.  He loaded a small number of minutes onto this phone.


My beta wave finally came up with Republic Wireless so we paid upfront for the phone.



  • $10.71 to ATT for some dumbphone minutes
  • $35 for my dumphone service
  • $277.78 for my new smartphone




Our first misstep occurred with the suspension of Kyle’s Verizon account.  He had originally thought it would be suspended for 6 months, but was surprised to receive a bill in the fourth month.  It turned out that the suspension was only for 3 months and we didn’t catch it, so we were charged for a month of service we didn’t use at all.  No way to reverse it, but we suspended the account again.


After months of deliberation, Kyle finally decided in December to purchase the iPhone 5 through AT&T, since they offered the lowest-cost plan option.  He only needed a voice and data plan as he uses Google Voice, so when we went into the store to buy the phone we inquired very specifically about the price we would pay and the discounts we could apply (we get one through our university).  Since Kyle had already researched the plan thoroughly, we were surprised to learn that our discount would be applied to both the voice and data components of the plan, which was different than what he had found.  We also signed up for the insurance through ATT, which was supposed to be free for the first month.


Perhaps we shouldn’t have been, but we were shocked to find mistakes in our first bill – we were charged for the insurance and the monthly fee was much higher than what we had gone over with the salesperson.  Kyle felt as though he had been deliberately lied to.  So we went back into the store and talked with another person, who was able to reverse the insurance charge but said he couldn’t do anything about the inadequate discount.  We were very disappointed with the customer service at that time and inquired about the return policy on the phone as we were about to leave for our winter break.


This was also the first month of my smartphone use, and I kept my dumphone around for a while to make sure Sprint had good coverage and all of that, so I paid for both services in this month.



  • $66.32 for the month of Verizon service we didn’t use
  • $213.99 for Kyle’s new iPhone
  • $122.75 to ATT to for the new plan’s charges and a bit over a month of service
  • $35 for my dumbphone service
  • $22.28 for my smartphone service




Upon returning to Durham, Kyle figured out what had happened with the misapplied discounts – the original salesperson had given us the general “student” discount instead of the “staff” discount negotiated by our university, which was higher.  He corrected that mistake online.  However, we also discovered by comparing Kyle’s old Verizon bill with his new ATT bill that ATT was charging us several extra dollars in taxes over what Verizon had, which flipped the cost analysis to favor going with Verizon with exactly the plan he had had before the upgrade, only without unlimited data.


We went back to the ATT store to return the phone even though we had gotten all the mistakes worked out because of this issue of the taxes.  At first we weren’t sure why we would have been charged different taxes because the plans were so close in price, but then we thought that ATT just passes on more taxes that they are charged directly to the consumers while Verizon rolls some of their expenses into their overall plan costs.  We probably couldn’t have found this difference through online research.  Anyway, we went to return the phone because we were so disappointed in the customer service – if not for that we would have stayed even with the slightly more expensive plan.  Factoring in the restocking and activation fees, we figured it would be a few months before we would break even again.


Of course we had excellent customer service during that visit.  The salesperson even told us that the activation fee would be waived, so we would only be out the restocking fee.  He seemed very disappointed in his colleagues and Kyle became worried that he would be reprimanded after the manager was called over to talk with us.


That same night we headed over to the Verizon store to purchase the iPhone 5 through them.  (Doesn’t that seem wasteful?  I’m sure ATT can’t resell the phone we returned as new even though it functioned perfectly well.  If only the two companies used the same hardware, we could have kept the phone itself.)  It was a very simple transaction – just reactivating the account, buying the phone, and verifying that the bill would stay the same as it was last summer.



  • $178.99 refund from ATT for the old new phone
  • $246.08 to Verizon for the new phone
  • $22.18 for my smartphone service




We received our first bill from Verizon and it was more than we expected and very hard to decipher.  We think it was higher because it was for slightly more than one month of service.



  • $77.83 to Verizon for Kyle’s service
  • $22.18 for my smartphone service




This is a completely normal month of charges at last!  Kyle’s cell bill isn’t back to where it was last summer – it’s about $6 more.  We were assured – multiple times by multiple people – that the bill would be exactly the same as it was before we suspended it and the taxes wouldn’t be reassessed or anything.  This bump actually made the ATT plan the better deal, as it turns out.


We also finally inquired about the activation fee refund ATT said we would get but never did.  The employee who told us we could get it basically did not stand behind that statement and said we would have to “dispute” it with the company, which we don’t want to do because we thought we should be paying it in the first place and only got our hopes up because of what he told us!


We are too exhausted by this process to fight any more!  We are just accepting that Kyle’s bill has gone up slightly and we’ve had to eat all the fees associated with changing carriers multiple times.


This month I also dropped my smartphone on the ground and cracked the screen.  It still works but we do need to replace it, which we think we can do for about $25.  That won’t happen until we have some time in April, though!



  • $22.18 for my smartphone service
  • $69.85 to Verizon for Kyle’s service


In conclusion, our cell regular monthly cell phone bills went from $98.64 in August to $92.03 in March (with an upgrade in service), but in between we spent nearly $700 out of pocket on hardware and extra charges!  That really sounds like a terrible deal, although I guess it was slightly mitigated by not paying for a phone for Kyle for several months.  This money came out of our Electronics savings account until it was drained and then from our general savings (which we are now repaying monthly).  We are fed up with both ATT and Verizon lying to/misleading us.  So far Republic Wireless is working out fine, but we haven’t had any interactions with their customer service.  I’m not sure what we’ll do when Kyle’s contract is up in two years – maybe by then the alternate carriers on Sprint will have convinced us that we can trust both our phones to them!


Do you have any cell phone salesperson horror stories?  Is your cell bill what you expected it to be when you signed up?  Do you stick with one carrier or go with the best deal and why? 


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24 Responses to "Missteps on the Road to Value: Cell Phone Saga"

  1. CashRebel says:

    Wow, this is quite the epic saga. I think I would have given up and stated with ATT after the first lie. Props to you for keeping with it. I would hope that within a few years we all have figured out how yo do something like republic wireless. Its gotta happen!
    CashRebel recently posted..Something Out Of Nothing: Saving Green On Subscriptions

    1. Emily says:

      I think it would have been smarter to stay with ATT – we should have realized that BOTH major carriers would be similarly incompetent/deceptive. Hindsight.

  2. Sara says:

    Epic is the perfect word to describe this! I have one more year with Verizon, but I’m on my parents family plan and just pay the ‘rents directly, so my monthly bill isn’t too bad ($42?) I noticed last time I was home that what was a Verizon store is now X store that is licensed to carry Verizon- or something like that. Their in-store customer service is crap compared to an actual Verizon store

    Liam needs a new phone and we’re unsure what direction to take. Republic and Ting and the like sound great- but he wants to keep his number, and most of the low-cost plans don’t have service where he’s from so they can’t activate his number on their network.
    Sara recently posted..Wealth health, April 2013

    1. Emily says:

      I was willing to give up my number but was pleasantly surprised when they were able to transfer it. I’m thinking I should just get a Google Voice number like Kyle so I can keep it no matter what carrier I use. Does he want to keep the number specifically or just the area code? I bet he could get the area code through Google Voice. I was with my parents’ plan until last fall and Kyle was always giving me crap about it though I paid for my share like you do!

  3. AverageJoe says:

    Wow! That sounds like cell phone hell. I have a ton of cell phone horror stories, not limited to: broken phones, kids downloading apps before they understand that they aren’t free, horrible customer service at a Verizon store (offset by some truly remarkable service at another Verizon store) and a phone stolen then (somehow) turning up and being returned to us after we’d purchased a new one.
    AverageJoe recently posted..Jemstep Portfolio Manager Review: Finding the Asset Allocation Middle Ground

    1. Emily says:

      I admit I downloaded a piece of software from the Apple store not realizing that my credit card was being charged instead of the gift card I had wanted to use! So I sympathize with that mistake. Cell phones can really give people a lot of problems – my parents have had a bunch of trouble especially as my siblings are not super-careful with their property.

  4. When I saw the title I was hoping this wasnt because of republic – glad it’s not (for my own selfish reasons) and I’m glad that you’ve gotten everything back to normal.
    Sustainable Life recently posted..March 2013 Monthly Review

    1. Emily says:

      Republic has been fine through all of this, but just added cost and uncertainty at the beginning. I would have preferred if my opportunity to buy didn’t come up at the same time as Kyle’s phone craziness.

  5. I’m sorry to hear about your troubles – sounds so frustrating. I prefer to go month to month when I can for the added flexibility.
    Well Heeled Blog recently posted..How do you decide where to live?

    1. Emily says:

      Kyle would prefer that too – but not to pay for an iPhone up front! Trade-offs.

  6. Debt Roundup says:

    Dang, that hurt my brain just thinking about it. I have been thinking about trying out Republic because they are a Cary based company and I like when other companies try out different things. Thanks for the update and sorry that is was such a pain in the butt.
    Debt Roundup recently posted..How Much Does College Really Cost? Here is an Easy Way to Find Out

    1. Emily says:

      We brought it on ourselves! We shouldn’t have been chasing small-dollar differences in the monthly payments, I guess. I feel silly about how little we reduced our monthly spending and how much we spent in extra stuff. We won’t overcome it for Kyle’s phone during the reasonable lifetime of the phone.

  7. Pauline says:

    Just reading that was exhausting! Glad it is over. I have a dumbphone since I lose them too often to risk having a smart phone, and the SIM that serves as an internet modem gives me free minutes so my bill is $0, considering I would buy the internet service without the minutes.
    I have read about cutting SIM cards and putting them into unlocked iphones to reduce the costs, paying for just minutes $10 or so a month and using free wifi for data.
    Pauline recently posted..Increase the value of your home

    1. Emily says:

      Kyle looked into some of those REALLY alternative methods while he was phone-less. He actually used an iPod whenever he was under wireless and then the little dumbphone made the occasional phone call for him when necessary. If you don’t even become accustomed to using data over cell networks I think it can work out well!

  8. Don’t be too exhausted to complain.

    We have Sprint and have had exactly the same problems.

    Every time our contract changes, they mess it up and charge us more than they’re supposed to. Every month for 3-4 months we call until they make it right, including getting reimbursed for previous mistakes. Eventually they make it right. (It has gotten so I make DH open the bill, because every time I open it, they seem to have screwed something up.)

    We even had the tax problem– we were getting charged taxes for two different states(!), finally someone on the other end of the phone tracked it down to an old address being entered into one address place in their system that they don’t actually use for anything.
    nicoleandmaggie recently posted..More on teaching tactics: roll call, do now

    1. Emily says:

      Ugh, okay, thanks for the motivation to call up Verizon! I wish we had gotten the “your bill will not change one whit” in writing, though – I’ve wished I had something in writing through several of the stages of this saga! I’m glad you’ve had success with Sprint but sorry they keep screwing up on a regular basis.

  9. […] INCOME, SAVINGS, GIVING, rent, internet, and cell phone transactions are now stable!  Well, we might have to keep fighting on our cell phone bill to lower it by $6, but we’ll see.  We also allocated Kyle’s extra paycheck along the usual […]

  10. Actually, it is the same hardware. There is just different firmware locking it to the carrier. But Apple actually produces the iPhone with both CDMA and GSM antennas. It’s cheaper for them to include both in every phone then run two different production lines.

    What I miss most about AT&T was the ability to do other things on my phone while in a phone call. But at half the price with Virgin Mobile, I’ll live with the setback.
    Edward Antrobus recently posted..Could You Live on Minimum Wage?

  11. […] Missteps on the Road to Value: Cell Phone Saga was featured in the Festival of Frugality. […]

  12. […] to travel to weddings, for instance, so we make that a priority.  Kyle is pretty enamored with his iPhone, even though he went through a lot to get the contract he wanted.  Maxing out our IRAs isn’t […]

  13. Heather says:

    Helpful tip I had from a Verizon representative: Try to go to not one of the official Verizon Wireless stores, but for one of the retailer/affiliate stores in person. They look similar – in that they both have the logo etc, but the affiliate stores are run by a diff. company. They have the ability to give you discounts that the Verizon stores run by the corporate office don’t (since it’s based upon the individual store), and they’ll basically guarantee their work, and they’ll actually do the signing up for you in person. How do I know this? When my husband and I first combined phone plans, he was due for a new phone, I was due for a new phone, and we both wanted to keep our numbers, and there was a credit that he wanted to use. They figured out in what order everything had to be done (although it did take a couple of hours in store) so that we could use all of our discounts, and we’ve been happy ever since. It was quite complicated in all honesty, and I’m still impressed they managed to get it right on the first try.

    1. Emily says:

      Thanks for letting me know! I didn’t realize that there were differences between the stores. Do you know how to tell who is running which??

  14. […] a year ago when I was looking for a new cell phone I heard about Republic Wireless (RW), a company trying to offer something new in the cellular […]

  15. […] presents Missteps on the Road to Value: Cell Phone Saga posted at Evolving Personal Finance. We spent months chasing a few dollars in savings per month on […]

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